Commentary: Responses to survey will help describe labor shortages


Issue Date: September 5, 2012
By Bryan Little
As harvest season peaks, Farm Bureau is surveying members in order to gauge the extent and impact of labor shortages around the state.
Photo/Kathy Coatney
Bryan Little

From the time the 2012 California harvest began in the desert valleys last winter, farmers and ranchers have consistently reported problems in being able to hire enough people.

As harvests moved north through the state, farmers in many areas told Ag Alert® and other media outlets that fewer people were showing up to take seasonal harvesting jobs—despite recruiting efforts, higher pay and other inducements.

In a story published late last month in the North County Times, San Diego County flower grower Mike Mellano summarized the situation: "This is the first time anyone remembers significant and severe labor shortages reported up and down the state."

Because there have been labor shortages reported on farms for several years—and because farmers through their creative efforts have succeeded in avoiding large-scale crop losses—some observers accuse farmers of "crying wolf" about the problem.

Now, as the harvest season peaks, Farm Bureau wants to produce as complete a picture as we can of what has been happening on California farms. Is there a labor shortage? How deep is it? How has it affected farms and ranches? How will farmers change their crops or their operations as a result?

We've been asking those questions in an online survey, and the results to date have been revealing.

During the first week of the survey, we heard from farmers from throughout California, and 80 percent of those who responded said they have not been able to hire enough people this year. Of those who reported difficulty in finding seasonal workers, the majority reported shortages in the range of 10 percent to 30 percent. A few reported shortages of 50 percent or more.

"My harvest crews that should be about 20 are often in the range of 12 to 15 people," wrote one Southern California fruit and berry grower.

"Labor required for everything in winegrapes was difficult to get," according to a Northern California farmer. "We became late on everything: pruning, shoot thinning, leaf pulling and I am sure hand harvest will be short of labor."

Even some farmers who reported having adequate labor this year said they're worried about the future, including one who told us he'd made it through this year OK "but I've been speaking with my labor contractor and am very concerned about harvest labor for next winter."

When asked how they have responded to labor shortages this year, many farmers reported rescheduling pruning or other cultural practices.

"We are trying to streamline our operations so that the few employees we have can handle more of the harvest," wrote one North Coast farmer, who said the farm was not taking care of day-to-day needs such as equipment maintenance and weed removal.

Another farmer reported her crops were being harvested three weeks later than planned, resulting in some crop losses.

"Hopefully, they can get harvested before the fall rains," she wrote.

So far, a handful of farmers have reported to us that they left crops unharvested because they could not hire enough people.

In describing how they might change their farms next year as a result of 2012 labor shortages, farmers have discussed plans that include looking into mechanization of harvest, offering higher pay and incentives, and using more than one labor contractor.

A Northern California organic farmer said he plans to grow more cover crops as fertilizer instead of growing cash crops on that ground.

"This translates into fewer dollars into the local and state economy from start to finish: less inputs, less labor and less product sold," he wrote.

One survey respondent who had used the existing agricultural immigration program, H-2A, said it got "too expensive and difficult to use." A Central Coast vegetable grower who considered the program said it "is not user-friendly."

"The (Department of Labor) suggested that if I were to participate in the H-2A program that I have an on-staff attorney," the farmer wrote. "It is not cost-effective to retain an attorney for our small family farm."

Farm Bureau has worked for many years to achieve a workable solution that allows farmers to hire people who have entered the country legally to perform on-farm work. Right now, we're cooperating closely with other state Farm Bureaus to fashion an American Farm Bureau strategy for immigration reform.

Your responses to our labor survey will help in that effort.

The survey remains available online at www.cfbf.com/laborsurvey. If you have not already responded, please do. It will only take a couple of minutes of your time, and will provide us with better information about the depth and breadth of labor shortages on California farms.

(Bryan Little is director of labor affairs for the California Farm Bureau Federation and serves as chief operating officer for the Farm Employers Labor Service. He may be contacted at blittle@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.